Monday, October 24, 2011

Shaw's Balkans: Constellation's Arms and the Man

Arms and the Man might not be George Bernard Shaw's greatest play (that's Major Barbara), but it is his most entertaining and consistently playable from a theatrical point of view -- something proven once again by a new production by Washington DC's Constellation Theatre Company.

Constellation's version, directed by Allison Arkell Stockman, is acted with bravado by a cast that loves Shaw's language, savors his ridiculous plot, and reveals the core of human feeling at its heart. Mark Krawcyzk's explosively comic take on the pompous accidental hero Sergius is spot on, as is M.J. Casey's wry and self-possessed take on the mercenary Bluntschli. And the topsy-turvy competition between mistress and servant at the heart of Arms and the Man is wonderfully enacyed by Amy Quiggins (Raina) and Brynn Tucker (Louka).

Indeed, the excellence of the production got me wondering all over again about the play's roots in the nasty, brutish and short war in 1885-86 between Bulgaria and Serbia that inspired the play's meditation on the follies of war and romantic love -- and just how Shaw employs the Balkans in the play.

The war was indeed a short one. Spurred on by its own feelings of political pique and lost influence in the region due to the unification of a former Ottoman province in (present day) Western Bulgaria with Bulgaria proper in September 1885, Serbia declared war on November 14 and immediately invaded the disputed province. (The Austrian-Hungarian Empire also opposed the Bulgarian move and dangled its support for Serbian annexation of some of the land in question as an inducement for the declaration of war.)

Only two days later, the Serbian army arrived on a battlefield near the Bulgarian town of Slivnitsa. A three-day battle in the vicinity ensued, with Serbians making initial advances and then being repulsed. On the third day (November 19), the Serbs retreated and were pursued all the way back into Serbia. Another battle was fought near the town of Pirot on November 27 and the Serbs again lost, retreating deeper into South Serbia. A ceasefire quickly followed and a treaty was signed in February ending the war and leaving the border unchanged.

The brevity and seeming frivolity of the war no doubt attracted Shaw to its potential as a platform for a comedy -- though Bluntschli's view of war as a terrible business best survived with a full belly and no glory wins our definitively in the end. But how does Shaw employ the Balkans in the play.

Even in 1894, a full 20 years before another violent act of nationalism in the Balkans set off a much more horrible world conflict, the region is depicted as a wild landscape in which nature dominates and broods ("a peak of the Balkans," he writes to set the scene, "wonderfully white and beautiful in the starlit snow, seems quite close at hand, though it is really miles away.") The otherness of Shaw's Bulgaria also extends to the culture -- largely unspoilt by civilization and in a state of emerging enlightenment that sees Bulgaria in the throes of a romanticism in vogue in England a full eight decades before. (One wonders if Rebecca West got her initial impressions of the place from Arms and the Man.)

As an example, take Shaw's introduction to Bulgarian officer Sergius Saranoff:

Major Sergius Saranoff, the original of the portrait in Raina's room, is a tall, romantically handsome man, with the physical hardihood, the high spirit, and the susceptible imagination of an untamed mountaineer chieftain. But his remarkable personal distinction is of a characteristically civilized type. The ridges of his eyebrows, curving with a ram's-horn twist round the marked projections at the outer corners; his jealously observant eye; his nose, thin, keen, and apprehensive in spite of the pugnacious high bridge and large nostril; his assertive chin, would not be out of place in a Parisian salon, shewing that the clever, imaginative barbarian has an acute critical faculty which has been thrown into intense activity by the arrival of western civilisation in the Balkans. The result is precisely what the advent of nineteenth century thought first produced in England: to wit, Byronism. By his brooding on the perpetual failure, not only of others, but of himself, to live up to his ideals; by his consequent cynical scorn for humanity; by his jejune credulity as to the absolute validity of his concepts and the unworthiness of the world in disregarding them; by his wincings and mockeries under the sting of the petty disillusions which every hour spent among men brings to his sensitive observation, he has acquired the half tragic, half ironic air, the mysterious moodiness, the suggestion of a strange and terrible history that has left nothing but undying remorse, by which Childe Harold fascinated the grandmothers of his English contemporaries.

There are other familiar notions of the Balkans here as well: the running joke about the Petkoff family library -- which Shaw notes in his stage directions, "is not much of a library" -- but does have an electric bell to summon the servants. And there is, too, the hint of senseless violence associated with honor that had also gone by the wayside in late Victorian England:

SERGIUS. You have deceived me. You are my rival. I brook no rivals. At six o'clock I shall be in the drilling-ground on the Klissoura road, alone, on horseback, with my sabre. Do you understand ?

BLUNTSCHLI [staring, but sitting quite at his ease] Oh, thank you : that's a cavalry man's proposal. I'm in the artillery ; and I have the choice of weapons. If I go, I shall take a machine gun. And there shall be no mistake about the cartridges this time.

SERGIUS [flushing, but with deadly coldness] Take care, sir. It is not our custom in Bulgaria to allow invitations of that kind to be trifled with.

BLUNTSCHLI [warmly] Pooh ! dont talk to me about Bulgaria. You don't know what fighting is. But have it your own way. Bring your sabre along. I'll meet you.

Shaw's Balkans aren't the Coast of Bohemia. Indeed, the continuing power of the image of the wild and black and backward Balkans that comes down even to this day lends it a certain power. Yet Shaw's Balkans in Arms and the Man come most powerfully alive when portrayed as region under the sway of large powers -- pawns, perhaps knights on a larger chessboard. That, too is an image closely associated with the Balkans -- yet one nearer to the mark from the First World War to the Second World War to the Cold War and into the battle of Kosovo's independence:

CATHERINE. A Swiss ? What was he doing in the Serbian army ?

PETKOFF. A volunteer, of course keen on picking up his profession. [Chuckling] We shouldnt have been able to begin fighting if these foreigners hadnt shewn us how to do it : we knew nothing about it ; and neither did the Serbians. Egad, there'd have been no war without them !

RAINA. Are there many Swiss officers in the Serbian Army ?

PETKOFF. No all Austrians, just as our officers were all Russians. This was the only Swiss I came across. I'll never trust a Swiss again. He cheated us humbugged us into giving him fifty able bodied men for two hundred confounded worn out chargers. They werent even eatable !

SERGIUS. We were two children in the hands of that consummate soldier, Major : simply two innocent little children.

More information about Constellation Theatre Company's production of Arms and the Man here.

(Brynn Tucker as Louka and Mark Krawcyzk as Sergius in Constellation Theatre Company's production of Arms and the Man. Photo by Scott Suchman.)

Friday, October 21, 2011

Exotic Medicine: The Music of Happy Clinic

The proprietor of Balkans via Bohemia has -- at various times in his life -- lived the expat life to the hilt.

One very rarely enters into that life with bad intentions. Indeed, one's good intentions are an almost necessary portal. Curiosity. Desire to help. The journalist's urge to tell a good story. These are often the first steps on a slippery slope. A road to excess that ends in a palace of wisdom.

Writer musician and philosopher Stefan Sullivan has taken a few rooms in this palace over the years -- from London to Paris to Moscow to Bangkok and on to Washington, D.C. Perhaps that's why I'm so taken with his collaboration with veteran Berlin drummer and Tiger Lillies soundman, Claus Buehler in the ensemble Happy Clinic. The duo's first record, Memory Mound, is a Baedeker to the dark underbelly of the expatriate life: the sex, the drugs, the alcohol, the hipsterish intellectual wisecracking and the deep loneliness.

That Happy Clinic transforms this familiar territory into terrain that is strange and dangerous is the magic of Memory Mound. The secret is the unflinching and uncompromising eye that Sullivan has for the ugliness and absurdities of the expat life -- married to a powerful and percussive sound built on beats and loops. It's a record that never stoops to sentimentalize. Just check out the way the derangement of the music hall player piano vibe on "Chickity Black" so perfectly aligns with the lyrics' celebration of a "joys of uncensored leisure." Or the way that the music of "Lokomotiv" lurches and grinds to Sullivan's spoken-sung scat of debauchery and a life in "liquid ruins." (And the video for "Lokomotiv" is a delirious and wonderful bit of animated naughtiness.")

There's a way in which the vision of the exile is privileged. Everything is strange and worthy of notice. Things taken for granted by natives grow outsized or even demonic. And the expat can also be a poison -- a species let loose in an ecosystem which chews up and destroys the native habitat. This double vision is the lens through which Happy Clinic sees the world -- the hideous Bangkok of "Belly x 2"(with a squonking harmonica by Scott Albert Johnson), the unspecified darkness of "Ocean Too Deep," in which sex is the spark that gives no warmth, or the punishing self-loathing of the record's title track.

In his poem "Skunk Hour," Robert Lowell wrote "I myself am hell/nobody's here..." It's a revelation that greets any exile in the mirror after a few months of the expat life. Exiles necessarily feed upon the richness or poverty of their own inner resources -- and seek sensation to distract and deny that loneliness. On Memory Mound, Sullivan and Buehler have created a rich portrait of that emotional poverty and the self-hustle that sin and stimulation can fill it up.

More about Happy Clinic and Memory Mound at the duo's website.
Buy Memory Mound here.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Dance and Drink the Mekons: Live in DC/VA on 10/6/2011

It doesn't happen very often that you get to see the legendary Mekons. But lucky folks in San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York have seen/will get to see the Mekons this week as they play some US shows behind their new record, Ancient and Modern 1911-2011 (Sin Records/Bloodshot). A slew of European cities -- including a very Balkans via Bohemia-esque run through Prague, Berlin and Vienna -- will get them next month.

Fortunately, the band will save me a trip to New York by playing at the Iota Club and Cafe in Alexandria Va tonight. (Thursday October 6, 2011) The show is acoustic, but it's a distinctly electric experience anyway.

The band is legendary on numerous counts: (a) its longevity (the first lineup emerged in the punk aftershocks of 1977); (b) its bitter futile jousts with the record industry (a road littered with hopes raised and dashed, and records languishing unreleased for years); (c) its boozy live shows with cracking witty and sometimes cruel banter between singer/guitarist Jon Langford and singer Sally Timms; and (d) the messianic fervor in which the band has been held by critics (Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus) and fellow artists (Jonathan Franzen) alike.

It's been fun to watch the reception for the new Mekons record. There's always something terrific about hearing any new Mekons record, but to my ears, Ancient and Modern is one of the band's strongest efforts post-Retreat From Memphis (1994). "Space in Your Face" is one of the band's strongest songs ever -- a roaring stomp sung by Jon Langford that mashes up the dynamiting of the Los Angeles Times Building in 1910 with some dark obsessive noirish romance. "Geeshi" is a complex, autumnal gem sung with a boozy world-weary ache by Sally Timms that wouldn't seem out of place with tunes like "Gin Palace" and "Prince of Darkness" on the band's 1987 classic The Mekons Honkytonkin'. The record moves from strength to strength -- the tender doom of "I Fall Asleep," with one of Tom Greenhalgh's best ever vocals; the sinister "Calling All Demons"; the shambolic pervy "Honey Bear" -- where sex and food and politics burst the song's seams.

So go see them tonight at the Iota Cafe. Or, as one of their early singles from 1978 so aptly put it, "I'll Have to Dance Then On My Own."

The Mekons show starts at 8 p.m. with opener Chris Mills. Tickets at the door are $16.